April 20 (UPI) -- A federal judge singled out and criticized for his Mexican heritage by President Donald Trump last year will preside over a high-profile immigration case that's dogged Trump's administration in recent days.
California U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel was assigned the case of Juan Manuel Montes, a legally protected migrant under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals law -- or "Dreamer" -- who became the first from the program deported under Trump's new enforcement-centric immigration agenda.
Curiel was randomly assigned the case, which now places him in a critical position to either support the actions of Trump's government or strike them down.
Montes, 23, who was born in Mexico but emigrated to the United States as a child, was sent back to his native country in February after he was detained by a Customs and Border Patrol agent in Southern California.
Federal authorities deported Montes even though he is DACA-protected until next year. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security previously said his protected status expired in 2015, but conceded Wednesday that it actually didn't run out until 2018.
Montes, however, remains in Mexico because U.S. officials maintain that he violated the terms of his protection -- a claim denied by the immigrant and advocates working in his behalf.
Curiel, who was born in the United States, was targeted for criticism last year by then-GOP candidate Trump when the judge heard a civil case in the Trump University scandal. Trump called Curiel a "hater" and said he couldn't be objective because of his Mexican ancestry -- an accusation that bristled critics and drew more claims of bigotry against the brash billionaire.
"He's a Mexican. We're building a wall between here and Mexico," he later told CNN, denying that his opinion of Curiel as a bad judge because of his heritage meets the definition of racism.
"No, I don't think [it is racism] at all," a clearly agitated Trump said. "He's proud of his heritage. I'm building a wall."
Later, while stumping for votes, Trump told an evangelical group that, "No one should be judged by their race."
Since taking office, Trump has taken several steps critics say are based in racism -- such as ordering a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, barring all refugees and certain immigrants from U.S. entry and expanding the pool of undocumented immigrants for deportation.
Montes' immigration case has already given Trump's administration a black eye, as the president promised in January that foreign nationals protected with DACA status would not face deportation under his new policy to enforce U.S. immigration laws.
Trump's stance on DACA has changed. During his campaign, he promised to end the program. Lately, he has signaled sympathy for immigrants brought to the country as a child.
"We are going to show great heart," Trump said in February. "DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you."
Lawyers have filed a lawsuit against the government in the Montes case, asking for the DHS' records on the matter. Montes claims he was arrested and deported on February 18, and then was sent back again two days later after attempting to re-enter. The DHS says the first deportation didn't happen, and that Montes was only sent back after trying to enter the Calexico crossing on February 20.
Neither Trump nor the White House immediately commented on Curiel's appointment to the case.